French director Jean-Luc Godard’s 1962 noir masterpiece certainly deserves polishing. At the risk of sounding superficial, the treatment makes '60s icon Anna Karina look gorgeous.
A directionless 21-year old in Paris, Nana (Anna Karina) scrapes by as a record store clerk. She’s left her husband Paul (Andre LaBarthe) and their baby for an acting career. When she can’t pay the rent for her apartment, she turns to prostitution and gains a pimp named Raoul (Saddy Rebbot).
If you’re unfamiliar with Godard, he loves breaking traditional storytelling rules. He divides the film into 12 tableaux, or scenes, preceded by a black screen with a short summary. They roughly follow a standard three-act plot, but never truly flow together. Sometimes a scene refers to an important event we never see. Nana admits little of her feelings, so her behavior appears slightly confusing.
A voyeuristic urge to figure Nana out drives Vivre sa vie. Look at the movie like like a bunch of YouTube clips someone recorded of a stranger with their iPhone. We constantly watch Nana’s face, fringed with stylish black hair. Like a silent movie, most of Karina’s acting consists of distinct facial expressions and gestures. Most writers mention her tearful, saucer-eyed viewing of The Passion of Joan of Arc, itself a silent movie, and her exhilarated dance around a pool hall. I think her police interrogation for stealing money feels equally powerful. Her averted glance suggests more going wrong than missing rent.
Godard shot most scenes in one take so slightly messy camera movements add the feeling you’re eavesdropping. When Nana looks directly at the camera, she’s catching you spying on her. On the other hand, cinematographer Raoul Coutard also constructs stunning shots like Nana and pimp Raoul sitting in a café with a Parisian boulevard behind them. The camera slowly reveals the crowded streets to be a wall sized photograph. Later, editor Agnes Guillemot chops a pan to a gangster shootout into a burst of images.
Among the many themes of Vivre sa vie is how it compares prostitution to daily life. But, I find the depth to which Nana's fall affected me more interesting. Godard accomplishes it without telling the whole story.